ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 01

The riddle of Qaf

Author | Autor: Alberto Mussa

Translated by Lennie Larkin

Note of Forewarning

This novel’s main story is divided into twenty-eight chapters that are titled according to the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet. 
  Between them are intermediary, unnumbered chapters, which I have alternately classified as parameters and excursions. The excursions are narratives that are more or less related to the main plot, in which they were originally inserted, but which I chose to disassemble for greater appreciation by the reader.
  The parameters are legends of Arab heroes who are comparable to the protagonist and poets like him, whose talents you shall be able to judge shortly.
  For those merely seeking entertainment in a short tale of adventures (and this is what I advise), you should follow the main story in a linear and direct fashion, and not waste time with the intermediary chapters – which can be saved for later and read at any time and in any order. There is, however, one exception. For a greater understanding of pre-Islamic culture, as well as the mythical universe that envelopes the narrative, it is recommended that you also read the parameters.
  Finally, only those who have the gall to try and solve the riddle of Qaf, before reaching the final fullstop, should also read the excursions, and also pay attention to the epigraphs and tidbits of information included beneath each one of the twenty-eight Arabic letters.

Alif 1st letter as a number, 1 in a sequence, the 1st first letter of , god, and , God
When I tell a lie,
will I not be restoring
a more ancient truth? (Scheherazade, the authentic one)

The Age of Ignorance – as the era that ended with the advent of Islam has come to be known in Arabic history – was a time in which men came to be more noble than horses and mares coveted the beauty of women. It was also a golden age for poets of the desert, who elevated poetry to heights unattained in any language, in any century.
  However, as proof of the refined taste of the time, only seven of the poems written during this epoch were transcribed on to camel skins and deemed worthy of being suspended from the great Black stone which still exists in mecca, to hang there until made eternal in the memory of the Bedouin.
  While in Beirut a few years back, I carried with me a version of an eighth poem that – I maintain – was certainly among those that hung from the great Black stone. Non-canonical tradition refers to it as Qafiya al-Qaf, which can be translated as "poem, whose rhyme is based on the letter qaf, which deals with the mountain named Qaf". A play on words, as you can see.
  Professors, scholars and intellectuals who have had the privilege of reading the work, confirm that they had never heard of the poem and that they were not at all familiar with either the plot or its characters. I explained that the text was a reconstruction of the original – only as inauthentic as a rock, sculpture, or monument preserved by the hands of a restorer.
  The principal objection of these wise men, professors of prestigious universities in Cairo and Beirut, was that there existed no manuscripts which could substantiate my work, nor was I willing to make my sources available.
  So it was that I was forced to reveal that I had no sources, if this concept applies only to written material; and that it was my grandfather Naguib who, on falling in love with my grandmother mari, ran away from home and secretly embarked on the steamship that was carrying mari’s family to Brazil, who carried, besides a suitcase filled only with books, part of the verses of The riddle of Qaf, memorised by heart.
  I learnt the essence of the poem from my grandfather. The rest, the gaps that old Naguib’s memory did not retain, I recuperated from legends gathered during my wanderings through themiddle east, and from all sorts of diverse historical facts that I was able to compile.
  Nevertheless, the text was considered fraudulent. It diverged greatly, I’ll admit, in structure and style, from the remaining suspended poems, but it anticipated the technique of composition of imagery that would account for the glory of the language and of the Arab poets. It was certainly this merit that would come to be considered as excessive.
  So it was that I never had the honour of publishing the poem; no one would endorse my reconstruction. The versions that circulated (if they had, indeed, circulated, for there exists some doubt about this) were unreliable copies, written in ink on foolscap paper.
  As if this weren’t enough, a famous scholar of Arabic literature mentioned the case of Qafiya as one of the greatest academic forgeries of the semitic languages.
  I was enraged; I went to the newspapers to create an uproar, I called all of those doctors, and I called upon intellectuals of the non-canonical tradition, to defend the poem. unfortunately, I gradually came to realise that the entire non-ca- nonical tradition was made up of me and me alone.


The first arab

  The first time the word Arab was written – or, to be more exact, inscribed – to designate a nomad riding atop a camel, was in 853BC, when Jundub and one thousand other men riding camels united Israel and Aram against Assyrian armies.
  Historians do not know exactly who this Jundub was, nor the origin of the terrifying Arabs. Jews consider them descendants of Ishmael, the first-born son of Abraham and brother to Isaac. Greeks and Phoenicians agreed that they were sons of Cadmus. The egyptians, that they had sprung from the sand seasoned by osiris’ sperm. The Persians, that they were Ahriman’s faeces.
  For Arabs, Arabs are all those for whom Arabic is a mother tongue. They are, by this criterion, a single people, albeit divided into hundreds of tribes and lineages of pure and impure Arabs, who cannot necessarily be traced back to a common ancestry.
  For the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance, the tribes descended from Ishmael’s twelve sons were not Arabs in the written sense of the term. They had been Ara- bised by the true Arabs, natives of Yemen, from whom they had learnt the lan- guage and adopted the customs.
  Legends tell of a certain Yarub, who first inhabited the mountains of the south and was the first to herd goats, to burn incense and to prepare the infusion that we know as coffee. It was also this Yarub who was the first man to speak in Arabic. except that the Arabic language, unlike all other human languages, did not emerge following the fall of the Tower of Babel. It was invented by Yarub.
  At that time, languages comprised just verbs and nouns, as well as a few mi- nor pronouns and articles. Yarub created the adjective. But he was not satisfied. "I want an infinite language, in which each word has infinite synonyms," goes the classic phrase. And Yarub’s indefatigable work made Arabic an infinite language. But there was a problem: he substituted one word for another without ever obtain- ing the same meaning, in a precise, exact, unequivocal manner. There always arose a new idea, a variation, something that diverged from the original sense.
  It was the case of jamal (camel), initially a synonymous pretense of jameel (beau- ty); or of bayt (house), which Yarub tried to implement as the equivalent of bayd (egg).
  Unfortunately, these failures trickled into popular understanding and inspired the first vagabonds who began to write poetry. Yarub armed men to silence them. But he was unsuccessful: the vice of poetry had contaminated the women; and they came to hide the fugitive men, throwing their own clothes over them as they took them off.
  Yarub confronted this shame and continued the siege until one of the poets – Awad, pronounced also as Awad – composed the satire in which the same term could have two meanings. It was the end.
  "The words are not even synonyms of themselves," he concluded, with eyes low. At this point, the versions contradict one another, but what is certain is that Yarub withdrew from human company, and in the solitude of the mountains he sought to achieve perfection in his language.
  He was alone for twenty-eight years. His beard and hair grew so long that he would have been unrecognisable, were he not the one person still capable of inventing vocabulary, from one moment to the next, to discover something with semantically identical results to its predecessor and possess a single signified.   Already on the edge of death, after having infinitely failed, he called his children together so as to redeem himself. "I don’t believe in synonyms." And he spoke not one more word. 


Ba 2nd letter as a number, 2 in a sequence,
the 2nd first letter of , hymen, and , door
Two types write:
those with no memory;
those with no words. 

The journey that brought the poet, author of Qafiya and this novel’s hero, to solve the riddle of Qaf, was the same as that which gave him the love of layla. I cannot, therefore, deny a place in eternity to the camel skin that first recorded this story, al- though I know that there are few who truly value its knowledge and beauty.
  Of her, of layla, there might not be much that has remained. But at least I shall bestow immortality on the name of the poet al-Ghatash and on the tribe of labwa, I shall reconstitute the most beautiful of the poems, I shall reveal the interpretation of the most fascinating of the riddles, I shall dispel legends of the skills of genies and the power of gods. Because it has to be thus; those free of vanity do not write books.
  I learnt the legend of al-Ghatash while still young, while sitting at the foot of my grandfather’s rocking chair, alone with him, in the old clothing factory in the depths of the huge house on rua Formosa, in Campos dos Goytacazes. old Naguib recited to me, in Portuguese, that which I assume was his personal adaptation of Qafiya.
  From the first time I heard it, I was fascinated by this story of a poet who crossed the desert in search of an unknown woman, of a riddle that told of a fabledcircular mountain, of a blind and cross-eyed genie who could travel through time.
  I remember well my grandfather’s emotion in that rocking chair. I sensed that he believed in the legend of the riddle, in the possibility of men like us, men of flesh and blood, returning to the past. Whenever I began to doubt, he would look at me, deadly serious, and would point to a dusty instrument, which I later came to discover was a small telescope.
  My grandfather Naguib died before teaching me what a telescope was. I grew up with the poem ingrained in my memory – that is obvious. But I wanted it in a written version. I turned the house on rua Formosa upside down, searched through trunks, opened each one of the five thousand volumes on the bookshelves, I even knocked over the telescope, and all I found were a few loose pages, which bore the handwriting of Naguib and recorded only brief observations on Arabic literature, with no mention of the adventure of al-Ghatash or the blind, cross-eyed genie. 
  There was also a sketch of our family tree – tracing us back to descendants of the tribe of labwa, settled since the fifth century in the deserts that surround the hills of Hebron. 
It was this desire to salvage the lost fragments and to give written form to Qafi- ya that inspired me to learn classical Arabic, Hebrew, the myriad syrian dialects, and even the extinct epigraphical idiom of Yemen. I also immersed myself in the archae- ology of the middle east; I pored over the geography of the deserts of syria and Ara- bia; I studied Bedouin ethnology; and practically learnt pre-Islamic poetry by heart.
  But it was only when I dedicated myself to the science of the stars, in the primi- tive fashion that arose among the Chaldeans, that I could reconstruct. 

imru al-Qays

For a large majority of scholars, the most ancient recognized Arab poet is Imru al-Qays, and not al-Ghatash.
  There are some important distinctions between them: Al-Qays was the son of the powerful chief of the Kinda tribe; as for al-Ghatash, we do not know who his father was. Al-Qays is not linked with any female figure; while al-Ghatash was obsessed with layla. It was al-Qays’ spirit that received and guided the prophet muhammad on his visit to the circles of hell; al-Ghatash would not have had any such patience.1
  Al-Qays was reckless. There are those who say he had the eyes of a year-old calf and that, with these eyes, he seduced countless women.While in Constantino- ple, he even made love to the virgin daughter of Caesar himself, between the very palace walls and under the noses of the Byzantine guards. He crept into encamp- ments at night to kidnap lovers. He was particularly fond of surprising naked girls while they bathed in the oasis. Al-Qays possessed true passion. At the beginning of his suspended Poem, he enumerates various abandoned encampments, where he would stop and cry at the memory of a woman and of tents, searching for footprints erased by the desert winds.
1. It has been said that the Florentine plagiarist Dante Alighieri profusely studied Muslim eschatology before writing his Comedy, and that he gave Imru al-Qays the Latin name of Virgil.

  He never gives the name of the beloved who inspired him, as convention of the genre determines. Critics assume he is referring to a Bedouin woman who moved on to inhabit the locations mentioned. But no: at each stop in the desert there was another love for al-Qays.
It was his own father who banished him from the tribe, on learning that his son had been caressing what throbbed beneath his own cousin’s tunic, after jumping on his camel and bursting into the palanquin. 
And I said: go ahead, free the rein, but do not take from me this fruit that shall harvest double...
  This adventure was, in one sense, the last straw. It seems that the poet’s father was already enraged by some verses that were circulating and revealed the sexual exploits of al-Qays. The scene in which he has his way with a pregnant girl at the same time as she breastfeeds a baby has a disgusting beauty. In the erotic prelude common to all classic poems, it is rare for a poet to exceed a dozen or so verses. Al-Qays composed more than forty. But this sexual hypertrophy did not lead to a disregard of other traditionalmotifs: the glorification of the horse, the sacrifice of the camel, the hunting scenes, the description of the desert. Certain images are im- pressive, like that of nightfall, compared to the chest of a black charger that jumps and tumbles over the horseman.

  The originality of al-Qays’ poemlies,moreover, in the description of the envel- oping storm which is, according to some, a foreshadow of the Apocalypse. In the midst of the fury of the elements, where the mountains are the heads of weaving spindles, the drowned wild animals are onion roots, the fallen trees are paprika powder, Imru al-Qays’ most beautiful verse resounds: 

In Tayma not a palm tree was left standing; and among the structures of stone, only cliffs.

  In these passages, one perceives that al-Qays was a man of great solitude. In vain they have tried to discover if there was not a woman, at least one, whom he had loved more profoundly. They searched for traces in the suspended Poem itself, trying to recompose the picture of the Bedouin woman whose hair adorns her back, thick and black, like a cluster of dates on a heavily laden palm tree; whose waistline is a fine cord; whose legs are reeds of papyrus on the marsh; whose fingers, when they move, are white larvae, or fine twigs.
  And I ask: would women of the desert be beautyful if they were not just like this?
  I believe that the most beautiful verse of poetry in all the universe could be this, attributed to al-Qays:
  When the constellation of Pleiades appeared in the sky like a necklace of shining pearls, I entered, suddenly, the tent; and she, before the curtain, undressing, for bed, except for the most intimate garment... and I pressed myself against her – and a skirt slid to sweep away the tracks we left behind...
  I am still the only person on this earth to doubt the authenticity of these verses. They have already asserted that this is spite on my part, that I attempt to make of al-Qays that which others have made of al-Ghatash. They are liars. I am quite familiar with the personality of al-Qays. It does not seem right to me that he would allow the footsteps of that woman to be swept away, notwithstanding the risk of being discovered by the girl’s uncles.
  They say that he was passionate about form. He loved the imprint of a body in the sand.

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